‘How We Become who We are’: Part 3

Remember our guiding intuition, so basic as to be almost a second skin? It is that you and I want to make something of ourselves. We also say–and mean the same thing–that we want to do something with ourselves. An astonishing intuition!

Last time, I wrote about one assumption that rests quietly beneath this intuition. It is that we have lives to lead. This we believe as well!

But now imagine the strangeness of the other assumption you and I endorse: we do not begin our lives by being already fully realized. The strangeness does not result from the fact that human beings grow as most other things. Our physical form fills out, and we develop capacities for speech and laughter and other things. Nothing strange yet. The strangeness, instead, is to be felt in the idea that we want to realize ourselves, becoming more than we were at birth, becoming ‘who we are,’ says Nietzsche. And that is the paradox: namely, that we want to become who we are.

If we not begin as we would like ourselves to become, to end up, then what does this view of life also require? A rich vocabulary defined by

  • Potentiality. I have it (somehow) ‘within me’ such that I can do X or can become Y.
  • A sense of the ‘already here’ and the ‘not yet.’ I must be able to ascertain what is already here and what is not yet the case.
  • A final aim. That which counts as realization, actualization. The target at which one aims.
  • Alternatives. A potentiality can be realized as a final aim but by following some path and not some other path. I could devote my life to educating people, yet there are a number of ways of doing so: teaching children, instructing business leaders, showing young workers how to humanely raise cattle, etc.
  • Tension. I must be able to feel in myself the tension between the unrealized final aim (‘not yet’) and my current capacities so exercised (‘already here’). That tension can be forceful and full of vigor.
  • Identity. I must be able to say that I am the kind of person X who realizes final aim X. E.g., a philosopher, a pursuer of wisdom, is the being who achieves wisdom.

This vocabulary helps us to describe those who don’t know what their potential is, those who don’t have a sense of what is already here and not yet, those who don’t know what their final aim is or don’t know which final aim is right, those who haven’t thought through alternatives, those who lack that balletic tension, and those who realize some potential that they sense is ‘not them.’ Therefore, they sense that they have failed to become who they are.

When this is the case, they can conclude that they have failed also to make something (rich, deep, significant, etc.) of themselves or have not done something (rich, deep, significant, pregnant, fulfilling, etc.) with their lives.

If, like me, you sense that who have potential begging to be realized, then it is time to think seriously, earnestly, concertedly, and systematically about what that potential is and how it can be realized.